Start a Vegetable Garden – Tuesday Tip – March 27, 2018

Now that spring is here (although there’s plenty of snow still on the ground in the Northern zone where I live) it’s time to consider one of the most health giving and enriching activities you can pursue in retirement.  I’m talking about gardening, especially vegetable gardening, especially organic vegetable gardening.

Gardening is Good for Body and Soul

In a 2015 article in the journal Ageing and Society—”Exploring the health and wellbeing benefits of gardening for older adults”—the authors reported a mind-boggling array of benefits observed in their test gardeners, including:

  • increased exercise and physical activity,
  • better sleep from exposure to fresh air,
  • lower blood pressure and strengthened immune systems from being in and observing nature (like in a previous Tuesday Tip about birdwatching),
  • increased fruit and vegetable consumption, and more.

If you’re intimidated about getting started with vegetable gardening, start small, with a planter on your deck or porch.  Grow some basil and heirloom tomatoes, and by mid-summer you’ll be making pesto or interlacing slices of mozzarella cheese, tasty tomatoes, and basil leaves, drizzling them with olive oil and balsamic reduction, and sitting down for a lunch with the best tastes of summer.  Delicious!

Why Organic?

While not reported in the study, I’ll give you two reasons why you should consider organic instead of conventional vegetable gardening.  First, you’ll be saving your body from harmful herbicides and pesticides.  Second, you’ll be adding a mental challenge to your gardening endeavors as you enrich your soil and plot to outwit the pests committed to eating your bounty before you do.  Learning about and working with the ecosystem of an organic garden is like solving a challenging and beautifully-constructed crossword puzzle!

(More Tuesday Tips here.)

5 Women Who Reinvented Themselves

The Retirement Whisperer believes retirement is a time for reinvention and new beginnings.  To celebrate Women’s History Month, here are the stories of five inspiring women who reached new heights later in life in the arts, exploration, athletics, business and education.

The Writer

Harriet Doerr

Harriet Doerr published her first novel when she was 73.  That novel, “Stones for Ibarra,” won the American Book Award for first fiction, and was described as a “perfect book” by the author Alice Adams.  Born in 1910, Ms. Doerr dropped out of college to marry and raise a family, returning to college in 1975 and gaining entrance to Stanford University’s creative writing program.  According to her obituary in the New York Times, “other students resented her presence, until she read her first piece aloud.”  Harriet Doerr went on to publish another novel (at age 83) and a collection of essays.  She died in 2002 at age 92.

The Swimmer

Katherine Pelton took up competitive swimming at age 70 and, ten years later, shattered Masters swimming records for the 80-84 age division.  Her favorite stroke was the technically demanding butterfly, where she held records for 50 yards, 100 yards, and 200 yards. Ms. Pelton swam more than 2,000 yards every day, and died in 1992 at age 87.

The Explorer

Barbara Hillary

After surviving lung cancer at 67 and retiring from nursing, Barbara Hillary became interested in traveling to the North and South Poles.  She raised $25,000 to fund her expeditions and, in 2007 at age 76, became the first African American women to stand on the North Pole, four years later achieving the same first at the South Pole.

The Entrepreneur

Stephanie King at age 62 founded a website to sell crafts and other products created by female artisans around the world.  After a corporate career, Ms. King grew interested in issues of social justice and saw that women in poorer countries around the world needed financial independence to escape trafficking, arranged marriages, and other “subhuman conditions.”  Her business sourced products from Afghanistan, Guatemala, Nepal, Ethiopia and other parts of the world.

The Scholar

Nola Ochs

Nola Ochs was born in rural Kansas in 1911 where, after graduating from high school,she taught in a one-room schoolhouse before marrying and raising a family.  After her husband died in 1979, Ms. Ochs began taking community college classes before enrolling at Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kansas where, in 2007 she received a BA in General Studies with a specialization in history.  In an interview that year she said “as long as I have my mind and health, age is just a number.” Ms. Ochs died in 2016 at age 105, leaving 13 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.


Eat Blueberries – Tuesday Tip – March 20, 2018

The blueberry is one of the miracle foods of retirement and successful aging.  Those little blue globes of sweetness fight far above their weight, packing a left-right punch combination that should make it an essential part of your diet.  Some of the benefits of blueberries are specifically age-related, while others come more generally from a diet rich in fruit of all kinds.

Eating Blueberries Slows Brain Aging

Dr. Kris Verburgh, in his new book “The Longevity Code,” detailed the blueberry’s benefits.  “According to a Harvard study with more than 186,000 participants,” Verburgh writes, “people who ate these berries three times per week had a 26 percent lower risk of getting type 2 diabetes.”  A 2012 study from the Annals of Neurology showed that regular blueberry eating “can slow down brain aging by several years.”

While blueberries stand out from the pack, eating fruit of all kinds is good for you.  “For each portion of fruit people ate,” says Verburgh, “their risk of a heart attack was reduced by seven percent, according to a study that included more than 220,000 people.”

Don’t Rush to the Pancakes

Blueberries are great for you, but don’t get your fix with a plateful of blueberry pancakes drenched in syrup; that’s a big dose of unhealthy carbohydrates.  Instead, try this delicious alternative: oatmeal dusted with cinnamon, topped with blueberries, a handful of walnuts, and a little vanilla-flavored unsweetened almond milk.  It’s a great and tasty way to start your day!

(More Tuesday Tips here.)

Innovative Men’s Sheds Concept Gains Foothold in U.S.

“Men’s Sheds,” a movement founded in Australia to promote social interaction and community service among retired men, is coming to the United States.  Eleven Men’s Sheds have been established so far, several others are in the planning stage, and an organization—the US Men’s Sheds Association—has been formed to promote the movement and help new Men’s Sheds get started.

“Shoulder to Shoulder”

Helping a Cub Scout with his Pinewood derby racer

A Men’s Shed is a gathering place for older men typically organized around a theme and a purpose.  A Men’s Shed might feature a woodshop where men work together on community service projects like building handicap-access ramps for people who otherwise couldn’t afford one, or a kitchen where men learn cooking skills and share the food they’ve prepared.  There are nearly 1,000 Men’s Sheds in Australia, several hundred in both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, and 25 or more in Canada. The motto of the Men’s Shed movement is “Shoulder to Shoulder,” shortened from a longer phrase explaining how men prefer to communicate:  “Men don’t talk face to face, they talk shoulder to shoulder.” Some sheds have opened membership to both men and women and to people of all ages.

Mark Winston, a 60-year-old businessman and a founding board member of the US Men’s Sheds Association, first became aware of the Men’s Shed movement seven years ago, and four years ago helped start Canada’s second Men’s Shed in Vanderhoof, British Columbia.  When he learned that a Men’s Shed had been founded in Hawaii and another in Minnesota, he began networking with the founders of those sheds and with leadership from the International Men’s Sheds Organisation, and founded the US Men’s Sheds Association as a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization early in 2017.

Giving Purpose and Combating Depression

Winston has seen firsthand how Men’s Shed participation improves the lives of men in retirement.  “At the Vanderhoof shed we were able to persuade a couple of guys to participate who were so depressed they didn’t want to leave their apartments,” says Winston.  “One day I was at the shed and one of them took me by surprise by walking up and giving me a hug. He told me: ‘Thanks for giving me my life back.’ Now these two guys have keys to the shed and are opening and closing it five days a week.”  Winston says that Glenn Sears, the founder of the first US Men’s Shed in Hawaii, had moved there from Colorado with no friends and now has 50.

Sears and Phil Johnson, the founder of Minnesota’s first Men’s Shed, joined Winston on the association’s board of directors.  Johnson, 68, a retired software engineer who had earlier played a pivotal role in establishing women’s pole vaulting as an NCAA-sanctioned event, saw the Men’s Sheds movement as another opportunity to do “exactly what I like to do”—lead a national movement.  He has also seen how participation has made a difference in his own life. A friend of his, Johnson said, recently told him that he seemed much happier since becoming involved in the movement.

Spreading the Movement With a Top-Down Approach   

By permission Hawaii Men’s Shed Association

In other countries where the movement has taken root, individual Men’s Sheds typically grow when a small group of men in a locality hear about the movement, meet to express mutual interest and willingness to get involved, and only then seek advice on how to proceed from the national association.  In a larger and less homogeneous society like the United States, Winston and Johnson are taking a different approach, proactively reaching out to civic, community, and senior centers to generate interest in starting Men’s Sheds under the wing of existing organizations. Johnson describes this approach as akin to a “franchise” model.  They’re approaching national organizations like the Educational Development Center, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and veterans organizations to build a coalition and spread the word.  The association has also applied for foundation grants to fund growth of the movement.

Winston says complaints about gender bias have been few.  In fact, wives have been supportive because Men’s Sheds “give them a break and their husbands something to do.”  And the movement isn’t entirely man-focused. Internationally, Winston says, one in five Men’s Sheds includes women members and, in the United States, a new Men’s Shed in Florida is forming under the leadership of a female airman who sees the movement as an important resource for veterans who might be facing mental health challenges.

Into the Future

While still in its infancy, the US Men’s Sheds Association is laying a strong foundation for future growth of the movement in the United States.  They’ve drafted statements articulating the organization’s mission, purpose, and values, and have written a 2018 strategic plan detailing annual objectives in areas including marketing and communications, partnerships, funding, and organizational development.  Most importantly, they’ve established growth goals, hoping to expand to 50 sheds by the end of 2018 and to 200 sheds by the end of 2019.

To learn more about Men’s Sheds in the United States, find out if there is a shed near you, or learn how you can get involved in the movement, visit the US Men’s Sheds Association website.

Volunteer in the NICU – Tuesday Tip – March 13, 2018

Volunteering as a “baby cuddler” in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) is a unique form of community service with benefits for the volunteer as well as for infants and their families, and a great way to bring a sense of purpose to retirement.

Cuddling Helps Babies Develop

Volunteers provide a critical service; a staff member at Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola, Florida, explained to a local TV station that “when infants get extra attention and cuddle time between parent visits and medical rounds they gain weight more quickly, develop stronger cognitive skills, and reach [developmental] milestones at faster rates.”  And, as the opioid crisis deepens in the United States more children, many with their own health challenges, are born to addicted mothers just as they begin their own rehab battles, leaving children especially vulnerable.

Cuddlers May Experience Euphoria!

If you don’t have grandchildren of your own or grandchildren nearby, it’s a great way to get the baby fix we all need, and as you hold the child you’re likely to release endorphins and experience euphoria.

Look online for baby cuddler opportunities near you, and expect a thorough background check and training program before you get started.

(More Tuesday Tips here.)

Help Others Feel in Control of Their Own Lives to Feel Better Yourself

Academic articles can make for dry reading; that’s why at The Retirement Whisperer we’re committed to finding and reading interesting new research—so you don’t have to—and explaining what it means in plain English.  But that’s just the start. Scholars draw cautious conclusions from data, but we give ourselves license to speculate about the research’s possible broader implications. We couple the research with intuition to turn narrow findings into specific advice on finding happiness and fulfillment in retirement.

When Your Spouse Feels More in Control of His or Her Life, You Feel Better, Too

When our spouse or partner experiences a momentary increase in perceived control over his or her life, we experience a decline in what psychologists call “negative affect,” that is, bad feelings or thoughts that together add up to stress and distress.  That’s the finding in a February, 2018, article in the Journals of Gerontology titled “The More We Are in Control, the Merrier?  Partner Perceived Control and Negative Affect in the Daily Lives of Older Couples.”  

Previous research has shown that individuals experience stress and negative emotions when they perceive low levels of control; this German study sought to go beyond that insight to see if the same dynamic operates in “social systems” likes longstanding couple relationships.

87 Older Berlin Couples Surveyed

To get answers German researchers asked 87 Berlin couples to complete a brief survey six times a day for seven consecutive days.  At least one person in each couple was 70 years old or older, and the couples had been together for an average of 46 years. Survey participants throughout the day rated their perception of being in control—that is, belief in their ability to “influence and change life circumstances”—on a 0 to 100 scale and, on the same scale, the degree to which they felt nervous, jittery, frustrated, sad, worried or other emotions used to measure “negative affect.”

Results showed that you won’t experience fewer negative emotions just because your partner feels relatively higher levels of perceived control—that your own perception of control is the driving factor.  If, however, your partner experiences higher than usual perceived control, your negative emotions will abate.  My plain English take on the results? Each of us is to some extent an emotional island, but coping with life’s challenges is easier if you make it a team sport and help your partner experience more control in their life.

Applying This Insight in Your Own Life

Here are five Retirement Whisperer thoughts, speculations, and takeaways from the research:

  1. Not everyone is in a long-term relationship, but that’s not the only kind of intense emotional relationship.  Do similar kinds of mood interdependence exist, say, in close friendships that aren’t romantic relationships? My gut tells me that it does, and this research starts to help us see some of the ways to be a better spouse or friend.
  2. If I’ll feel better (with lower “negative affect”) if my spouse or friend feels more perceived control, what specifically can I do that will help them feel more control?  A plan of action would clearly depend on the person and the circumstance, but it seems clear that helping someone help themselves will both make them and you feel better.
  3. We’ve all heard the advice to “surround ourselves with positive people” but maybe that doesn’t quite get it right.  Positivity and optimism in those around us may not be enough; we need ways to help each other achieve more perceived control.
  4. What about other relationships in our life?  Can we lower our negative emotions by helping relative strangers experience higher levels of perceived control?  This might be one of the reasons why volunteering to help others makes us feel good. Teaching literacy or English as a second language may not only be empowering for the student but mood enhancing for the teacher.
  5. The research is just the launching pad for speculations like these, and I hope you find them intriguing.  Socializing is one of the pillars of successful retirement, and the more we understand exactly how our actions in relationships and friendships influences our happiness, the more intentional and proactive we can be.  In the meantime, helping others help themselves won’t hurt you. And it may help you.

Start Drawing – Tuesday Tip – March 6, 2018

When I was a child I liked to make pencil drawings of birds.  Fifty-plus years later, I no longer have any of those sketches, but I vividly recall that they weren’t all that bad.  They probably weren’t drawings I made while observing birds at the bird feeder—birds don’t stay still for long—but, more likely, they were copied from my parents’ bird guide.  But they were faithful and careful drawings that anyone would have recognized not only as birds but as cardinals or chickadees or whatever bird species I drew that day.

Drawing Is Great For The Brain

Maybe you liked to draw as a child but, like me, buried your visual creativity as school, jobs, and families became priorities.  Even if you have never picked up a pad and pencil, you should consider drawing as a retirement pastime for both its inherent pleasures and its proven cognitive benefits.  A study published in 2014 titled “How Art Changes Your Brain:  Differential Effects of Visual Art Production and Cognitive Art Evaluation on Functional Brain Connectivity” compared changes in neural connectivity in two groups of post-retirement adults, one that took a ten-week art class, and another that took a ten-week art appreciation class evaluating artwork in a museum.  Functional MRI testing after the “interventions” showed improved brain functioning in the art class group, and psychological testing showed gains in resilience in that group, too.

Drawing Classes are Everywhere

So buy that sketchpad and pencil set today, and you’ll soon want to take a class to improve your skills.  (In a class you’ll meet other aspiring artists; this will add a valuable dose of socializing to your day.)  This will add Fortunately, inexpensive art classes are widely available across the United States. I chose three medium-sized communities at random, and this is what I found:

Boise, Idaho:  Take an eight-week “Beginning Drawing 1” class for $120 with Boise artist Kevin McCain.

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma:  Take a four-week class in “Figure Drawing” for $85 at the Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center.

Rochester, New York:  Take a six-week “Basic Drawing” class for $170 at the University of Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery.

There’s sure to be a drawing class somewhere near you, too!

(More Tuesday Tips here.)

I Read It; You Wouldn’t Want To

When you write a blog about the “lifestyle” side of retirement, part of the regular discipline is to trawl academic research in the areas of psychology, gerontology, and cognitive neuroscience for news that might interest readers.  I call this category of blog post “I Read It; You Don’t Have To and this label is partly tongue-in-cheek—there’s a lot of valuable information in scholarly articles but, to put it mildly, much academic writing can have a narcotic effect on the reader.  (Believe me, I’m doing you a favor by giving it to you in plain English.)  It’s better just to ignore articles that are poorly argued and crafted, but sometimes you come across a specimen that’s compelling because of its awfulness, like watching someone slip on a banana peel in slow motion.  One such example is a recent article called “Social Media and Older Adults:  Understanding Cognitive Training and Social Network.”  After you’ve read it you find yourself scratching your head and asking big questions like:  What does this article mean?  Why does it exist?  I’m not sure I can answer those questions, but I’ll put some quotes from the article under the microscope to see what we can see…

Not All Professors Are Created Equal

#1 – “…there are unique challenges when the older population—age 65 and older-—accesses technology.  These technology challenges are beyond those of new learning experienced by the digital natives.  The millennial generation, who are digital natives, use computers daily in the ubiquitous age of digital technology and often interact socially and professionally using technology.  Older adults are people who were born before the digital age and adopted technology later in life, which fits the category of digital immigrants.  These immigrants may not have the resources to access social media, such as a handheld device, internet connectivity, or a resource for technology training to name a few.

Seriously?  Jargon (“digital natives”) and bad grammar (“older adults are people… which fits…”) are rampant, but this passage’s biggest offense is stereotyping.  “Older adults” come off sounding like a Stone Age people; the authors haven’t actually met any of them in person but they sure are peculiar and fascinating!

Hang On To Your Wallet

#2 – “Researchers on aging have found that brain exercise and social integration lower the risk of depressive symptoms and dementia in older adults.  Furthermore, brain exercise and social integration reduce the risk of cognitive decline and health-related quality of life issues.  The habitual activities found in the use of social media might be a source of developing cognitive speed of processing and social interaction in older adults.  Hence, an investigation through the theoretical lens of social inclusion may produce findings that social media has a positive effect on the lifestyle and quality of life decisions made by older adults.

First sentence, check.  Second sentence, check, but wait… what does “quality of life issues” mean?  Third sentence, now we’re getting to one of my pet peeves–computer-based “brain training.”  This paper isn’t research but, rather, an essay proposing what the authors believe will be a fruitful direction for future research by others.  Beneath this, however, it feels like the authors’ goal is to gin up support for the notion that using social media will stave off Alzheimer’s Disease.  Maybe this will be shown to be true, but it feels like a pretty tortured path, and I can picture the research already.  It will compare older people who use social media with those who don’t on several common measures of cognitive ability, and social media use will be shown to correlate with better scores on these tests.  But it won’t compare social media use with other “behaviors” like chatting with a friend while taking a vigorous walk together, another potent recipe for “brain exercise and social integration.”  Hang on to your wallet:  there’s an entire industry out there trying to get us to pay for cognitive and social stimulation that’s available all around us for free.

Look For The Bare Necessities    

#3 – “Furthermore, extant results show that education and age are not related benefits of training…” and “While necessities are the basics of life, sometimes a simple contribution to an older adult’s day is grasping the concept of a computer application.

I really don’t know what to say.  Were the authors under deadline pressure?  Or is this sort of gobbledygook their natural writing style?  And who knew that “necessities are the basics of life”?  (Other than Baloo in The Jungle Book, that is.)

#4 – I lied.  Number four isn’t a quote from the article.

I found it interesting that both authors are IT (Information Technology) professors rather than psychologists or experts on aging.  The paper’s topic encompasses two fields, technology and psychology, but the authors’ expertise only supports one end of their argument.  Maybe that’s why “older” people sound like an alien race in this article.    

#5 – “Proceedings of the 51st Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences.”

I saved the best for last.  This paper was delivered at a conference that took place in Hawaii January 3-8, 2018, by professors from New Jersey and Texas.  Who wouldn’t want a reason to go to Hawaii in the beginning of January?

Trust—But Verify—The Benefits of Technology

It’s easy to make fun of slapdash arguments and writing, but there are some serious points to be made here.  I wrote this blog post on a Chromebook, I posted it on a WordPress website, and I spent $10 this week boosting the website’s connected Facebook page.  I’ve got nothing against technology, and I think technology will be a big part of the way Baby Boomers redefine retirement and aging.  But, as in so many things, balance is important.  The Retirement Whisperer will lean toward retirement “lifestyles” that bring people together in the warmth and richness of face-to-face or shoulder-to-shoulder interactions, will be a little suspicious of those who tell us that technology will solve our problems, and will never hesitate to call out the “experts” when they simply don’t make sense.